Graveborn Musings—Very Little Retreat; Hardly Any Surrender

In multiplayer Magic, it is very important that you pay attention to the concerns of your playgroup, because these are the folks you choose to play with, and casual play means that you accept some responsibility for their enjoyment of the game. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should slavishly bow to the whims of a lone voice in the group, or even to a chorus from the group, for that matter. Maybe there’s a fine line between sticking to your guns and being a jackass, but there’s definitely a line.

Nowhere in the casual universe is this more apparent than in Commander, where your choice of a commander is open—and open to attack—even before you’ve shuffled up. As an example, a new member of our playgroup told me recently that he was going to have to modify his BG deck because people were hating on his Commander. The offender? Skullbriar, the Walking Grave. 

If you’re like me, your reaction was probably stark disbelief. Skullbriar is interesting, potentially powerful and undeniably aggressive, but his deck was very generic, without any kind of combo potential that I’d seen and featuring far less powerful cards than the kind of decks that have, for better or worse, come to dominate the local metagame. If folks are complaining about a deck like that, then the complaints are clearly being driven by something other than the deck itself.

I’ve had a similar reaction to at least one of my decks recently. The offender? Sheoldred, Whispering One.

Is that the sound of stark disbelief I hear? No, probably not.

See, sometimes one or more people in your playgroup are going to overreact to a deck of yours that really isn’t a big deal, like Skullbriar; and sometimes a deck like Sheoldred will scare the hell out of people for good reason (even though she’s really very sweet once you get to know her). There might even be times when you build an Erayo deck that locks down the table on the second turn and you get rightfully crucified. Some of those times you might need to change your deck, others you can get different results by playing the deck differently, and sometimes you can just wait it out; it all depends on what it is that makes the rest of the table perceive it as such a threat.

Assessing Your Own Threats

Skullbriar is like a pitbull: he just comes out swinging, doesn’t stop, and makes people feel that they’re under pressure. But how much pressure are we really talking about? Skullbriar gets bigger every turn, but actually takes six turns of unfettered aggression to get to 21, which is really just an average of 3.5 damage per turn. The feeling of being pressured is what they’re responding to, but if you give them a few games to get used to the way Skullbriar actually plays, they should realize it’s no big deal.

Sheoldred is a little different, although still likely to be perceived as a worse threat than she is. Skullbriar is a force for your side of the table, but doesn’t take anything away from your opponents except strips of flesh, whereas Sheoldred will take from them almost as much as she gives to you, and the longer she sticks around, the worse it will get. Depending on the timing and the type of decks you’re facing, some opponents may find themselves locked out of playing their creatures for a turn or two, and that’s a pretty serious threat.

A similar case can be made for the threat presented by any of the praetor cycle, because they explicitly take something away from your opponents. If any of those legends lost the ability to affect your opponents, the threat perception on them would plummet far below where it is now.

The lesson here is that your opponents’ perceptions of the threat presented by any of your decks is driven by a range of factors, some more objective and some purely subjective. When you’re receiving more attention than you feel you deserve, you have to honestly ask yourself whether the rest of the group’s perceptions are legitimate or not, and then decide what you’re going to do about it.

This is not an argument in favor of ignoring your playgroup and doing your own thing no matter what, so let me give you a word of warning to prevent this getting out of hand: you can’t simply look at your win percentage as proof for or against your opponents’ concerns. Sure, you might only win a quarter of your four-player games, but if you lose those games purely because everyone else at the table is scrambling to take you down from the get-go, then your deck really is overpowered.

Stay the Course

On the other hand, if you lose every game because you tend to get dog-piled, but you really don’t feel that you could have won those games, or if you only win because the stronger decks beat each other, then in general it’s worth waiting it out rather than scrapping that deck. Eventually, the players who use up their resources against a less threatening deck like yours are likely to run out of gas against the strongest deck, and they should eventually realize that they’re losing because they’re overestimating your deck. In this situation, playing politics can be a great way to speed up the learning process: point out the other threats on the board, suggest what your opponent’s cards might mean to the rest of the table and, if you’re really struggling to stem the tide, give up some of your hidden information.

Usually, winning a game of multiplayer Magic involves manipulating hidden information to your advantage (whether that’s making promises about future actions or just figuring out what someone else is holding), but nothing beats the perception of threat like revealing a weak hand. If they’re terrified of Sheoldred, maybe you can get them off your back by showing them a hand that doesn’t have the mana to cast her; if they’re panicking over some early Skullbriar beats, then showing them a hand with no other creatures, or no removal for their blockers might calm them down; if they want to take you out because they think you’re an imminent threat, show them if you can’t seal the deal any time soon (hint: showing them a hand full of sweepers, acceleration and doomsday engines is not a good strategy in this case).

Minor Adjustments

If change is necessary, maybe you can just change the way you play the deck. For example, a deck can seem like more of a threat than it is if it takes out the first opponent too fast. Skullbriar, Urabrask and other hasty beaters are particularly likely to be overestimated for this reason. I’m certainly not a fan of taking people out of the game quickly on a regular basis, but if want to play an aggressive deck then you should know that even the most aggro deck ever made is less scary if it spreads the love around. Be the Butter and you might just find that your gaming nights become better.

If it is the commander that people hate, then consider playing the commander less. This is obviously easier with Sheoldred than Skullbriar, but it may be worth considering. If they hate to see one particular card, then it isn’t rocket science to consider playing that card less, and if you do then it is entirely possible that over time, the impact your commander has on the game declines to the point where they are no longer perceived as ball-breaking. With the commander safely in the command zone, your opponents might actually be reluctant to hit you for fear that they’ll provoke you into playing your commander, which can be a nice little deterrent.

Additionally, there’s a chance you could be able to play it at a time when at least some of your opponents are glad to see it. Sheoldred may not be everyone’s favorite card to play against, but when the green mage plays Ulamog and Asceticism, the rest of the table might beg you to play her. Even if there are no other benefits, playing your commander less often in the mid-game means that it will be easier to cast in the late game, when it can make more of a difference.

Major Changes

Changing the cards in your deck is a little bit trickier, because you can reduce threat perceptions by making the deck weaker or stronger. Once again, the specific context is going to decide what are the best changes to make, but let me give you a couple of examples. If you win with the same fairly cheesy combo more than about once a year, then it might be wise to weaken the deck by taking one or more parts of the combo out. If you have a pet card that you end up playing more or less every game (Primeval Titan seems like a common example in my meta—the guys who own one seem to play it in at least two games out of three) then it might be wise to take it out, unless you enjoy the groans of your playgroup.

Similarly, you might find that you run a particular type of card much more often than the rest of your group, to the point where it becomes a source of annoyance/perceived threat, such as artifact acceleration, tutoring or sweepers. I’ve played against a monowhite deck that could reliably cast Akroma three turns faster than I could play Molimo in monogreen, and that didn’t sit well with anyone except the white mage. But the question is, does the deck really become weaker if you take out the artifact ramp and replace it with a mix of land and spot removal? I think if the speed of the deck is elevating the threat perception of the deck, then making it slower and more flexible will actually strengthen it in your meta. The same goes for other types of cards that are making you the center of attention.

On the other hand, a deck that is built around a potentially threatening commander might be weak without it, in which case you can help to solve the problem by making the deck stronger and less commander-centric. This is counter-intuitive, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Let me give Sheoldred as an example again. I originally built it with weaker, more flavorful cards, and thought that I could have more fun playing political games than I could by smashing face with the most powerful black cards. I also wanted to be able to cast Sheoldred as early and as often as possible, until I realized that she was drawing far too much unwanted attention, and more than a few complaints. Part of the solution for me has been to replace some of the smaller, weaker creatures (which died too quickly but could be brought back later with Sheoldred) with bigger beaters and stronger rattlesnake effects. The result is a deck that is much better able to survive without its commander, but benefits less from her presence when I do cast her. Last week it won a nail-biting three-way game despite only casting Sheoldred once, and in fact it won even though she only stayed on the table long enough to bring back a single creature.

It isn’t hard to imagine similar changes that you could make to other decks with troublesome commanders. Urabrask could be strengthened by putting in more creatures that have haste themselves, so that there was less need to bring him out, or a Mimeoplasm deck could be strengthened by relying less on The Mimeoplasm to kill opponents in one or two swings and more on reanimation effects to beat them with creatures before The Mimeoplasm comes out to finish them off. Kresh could actually inspire less terror among your opponents if you used creatures that were more powerful in their own right, but had less synergy with Kresh’s ability, such as replacing Spitebellows with the generically stronger Rorix Bladewing, or replacing Briarhorn with Vengevine.

Conclusion

Threat perceptions determine a lot of what happens at all of the three levels of multiplayer. Strategic decisions are primarily shaped by threats, and the perception that you are more of a threat also makes it easier for your opponents to negotiate political deals against you. Most importantly perhaps, if the rest of the group feels that you are the only one who isn’t abiding by the restrictions of the social contract, then you have to expect negative consequences. That means that if you find yourself in a situation where your deck is regarded as a super-villain in your meta, you probably need to make some changes.

If you don’t want to simply play a new deck, then you can either use politics to change the way you present your deck to the group, change your strategy for playing the deck, or change the cards in the deck, in order to address the source of your opponents’ perceptions. Not making any kind of change at all is unlikely to make the problem go away, but it has an excellent chance to make things worse.

Remember that changing your deck doesn’t have to mean hobbling yourself or playing with cards that are too weak to be fun. You can strengthen your deck in other ways to address the concerns of your playgroup, but the most important thing is to understand exactly what those concerns are and what they are based on before deciding on a new strategy.

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About Graveborn Muse

Daryl Bockett has been an avid Magic addict since Legends/Revised. He lives and breathes deckbuilding and casual play. "The more the merrier" is his creed! In those brief moments when he isn't playing, reading or thinking about Magic, he teaches at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He has a Ph.D. in International Relations, which is basically only useful for helping him to understand the strategic interactions at a multiplayer table.
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11 Responses to Graveborn Musings—Very Little Retreat; Hardly Any Surrender

  1. When it comes to deck perceptions, I find it is best to be more critical of your deck earlier than anyone else is. For example, if after a couple of games, your new Olivia deck does something truly impressive, announcing that you are concerned that the deck isn’t that much fun, can be the preemptive strike in your favor. Let it sit for a few weeks, then bring it back later on. If it doesn’t do as well then, you are probably okay. If it continues to rock, bring it in rarely so it doesn’t build a reputation.

  2. Vrag says:

    I’ve run into a problem along the same lines, but harder to deal with. I play a bit of Magic Online because my play group just doesn’t get together very often. I made a Sharuum the Hegemon deck. It’s nothing more than a “bring back some cool artifacts if I bother to cast her” deck. Unfortunately there’s some infinite combo with Sculpting Steel and some other card that I didn’t bother to remember. I don’t like playing lock decks or even soft lock decks. So, I don’t play Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger, Myojin of Night’s Reach, Stasis, or any of the other “I can’t kill you for another 10 turns but in the mean time you get to do nothing” cards.
    Anyways, I’ve had to deal with people who are like “Oh great Hegemon”. I’ve yet to just get completely blown out though. It seems that despite most people’s fears, when they see you play silly things like Salvage Slasher, they realize you’re not playing an overpowered lock deck.
    I think certain cards just scare people because they have an effect they don’t like. One commander that is weak but causes discard will piss someone off before it’s played, but not even bother another person. I think the same goes for land destruction, hexproof, sacrifice, etc. Everyone has a certain game mechanic that they just completely despise. When it all boils down to it I think once you show people “don’t worry I’m not going to kill you in 3 turns”, some of that fear goes away.
    The biggest problem seems to be when you actually do destroy them. Then no matter how many times you play that deck and nothing happens, they always remember that one time. That’s why I try to avoid infinite combos, 2 card locks, or single cards that slow the game way down for everyone but me.

  3. Graveborn Muse says:

    Sharuum is one of those commanders that people play when they want to make a killer combo deck. I have a Sharuum deck myself, and I used to play Rofellos (now Molimo), and every time I sat down I had to introduce those decks as non-combo super-Timmy Rofellos or Shit-I-Have-Left-Over-From-Mirrodin.dec in order to counteract the idea that all ‘commander X’ decks have to be like that.
    The biggest danger seems to be when you play against combo-happy douchebags; because they would play that way, they often can’t believe that somebody else WOULDN’T play that way.
    Of course, being online creates a degree of difficulty, because people don’t usually know you or the deck. If someone online came in with Erayo as their commander I might refuse to play, and I’d certainly kill them immediately, but when my buddy Xin said, “This is my new commander, Erayo” I just assumed it was cool because he’s cool.

  4. Seedborn Muse says:

    I’ve found it wise to build specific themes into the deck that it’s clear you consistently can execute. In so doing, opponents can choose whether to leave you in the game. If there are pesky artifacts around the table, those who want them gone can turn to me if I’m playing Radha. The same is true for enchantments if I’m playing Tariel. Making your deck a reliable mercenary has plenty of upside, the largest one being the purchase of several turns. This also can work if you have a solid beatstick without it being the true threat. Getting an extra 4-5 damage per round on somebody can make you popular without being overly powerful. These are the Time Warps that don’t annoy the bulk of opponents, and they are awesome.

  5. shmebula says:

    Great article. I have a hard time figuring out when to go all out and hold back and appear as a number 2 at the table. I also tend to spread the beats around since I hate sitting out, which just creates more enemies. I’d love to read more about that aspect of multiplayer.

    • Graveborn Muse says:

      Thanks! I’ve got something in the works that will talk about an important aspect of that.
      One big question is, how competitive is your playgroup? One group I play with, casting a 7cc commander on turn 5 MIGHT make you a threat, or might just mean you’re keeping up with the Joneses; in another, playing Glorious Anthem in a token deck – sans tokens! – turned a threesome into Archenemy.

      • shmebula says:

        Well, my decks are typically the most powerful since I’m obsessed with the game and tune them regularly. I think because of that, and my win percentage, I’m usually considered the target. Though I typically agressively attack anyone that threatens my game. I think I’m the biggest cause of them attacking me but I have trouble sitting back, fearing being put in a bad position.

        I didn’t really answer your question.

        Their aggression is probably reasonably placed in general. I’ll have to *try* to play slower and observe. I did build a very huggy group hug Edric deck to try to play a game where I don’t plan on winning (though it could win) to shift their perception of me and for me to experience a different type of game. Of course, if I end up milling them with Keening Stone out of nowhere, I might just cement their opinion.

    • Graveborn Muse says:

      I play with two groups, and in one I am definitely bringing the strongest Commander decks because, as you say, I’m obsessed. In the other group, I’m nothing special, although my decks are perhaps more aggressive than the average there.
      In the first group, I’m a big believer in building decks until you’re weak enough to be considered an equal, meaning I’m more likely to play a theme deck or a weenie vampire build than one of the heavy-hiter decks that i write about regularly. On the other hand, last time I played in that non-obsessive group, I turned a 3-way into a game of Archenemy by the 5th turn or so – but I was playing a modified Ghave precon, only playing two non-stock cards in the whole game (Grave Titan, which got tucked, and Qasali pridemage). perhaps when they said my deck was really strong they meant really focussed, but the next time I play in that group I might just ask to borrow one of their decks, so that the perception of power imbalance disappears.

      • Graveborn Muse says:

        As you say, getting a victory out of nowhere in a “look at me, I’m not a threat” deck is really going to make you look dangerous. If I say “can I borrow your weakest deck” and still win 2 out of 3 games, they might be too terrified to play me again 🙂

      • shmebula says:

        I may start just updating my EDH decks with cards I open, or cheap/weaker cards, rather than all of the powerful fine tuning I’ve been doing. Maybe no Olivia in my vamp deck, but that deck wrecked them badly enough already. I do want to find more people to play against, so I can have a bit of a mix like you have.

        I played a 5 color Ally build that was intentionally weak last time we played and had an accidental win when my Living Death (that I’d been setting up) made my opponents lose a total of around 70 life with the black ally. Woops.

  6. Pingback: Friday Flashback – September 23 « CommanderCast

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